the legendary origin of ‘a Roland for an Oliver’


crosswords from the Evening Express (Aberdeen, Scotland) – 28th December 1959:

a Roland for an Oliver - Aberdeen Evening Express - 28 Dec. 1959

10 down: A Roland for an Oliver (3, 3, 3) [solution: tit for tat]



The phrase a Roland for an Oliver and variants mean a tit for tat, a blow for a blow.

Roland is a legendary nephew of Charlemagne celebrated in the Old-French epic poem La Chanson de Roland and many other romances, frequently together with his comrade Oliver; having fought each other in single combat in which neither won, they were regarded as unbeatable together.

In Le Mariage de Roland, from La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages – 1859 edition), a collection of poems conceived as an immense depiction of the history and evolution of humanity, the French poet, novelist and playwright Victor Hugo (1802-85) tells how Roland and Oliver met in single combat, fought for five consecutive days and, as neither gained the least advantage, Oliver offered Roland to become his brother and to marry his sister, Aude.

In the sense of two persons who match each other in respect of courage and heroic deeds, both characters are mentioned for instance in the prologue to Richard Coer de Lyon, a ‘crusading poem’ in Middle English which recounts the exploits, both historical and fanciful, of Richard I, King of England:

(edition based on Wynkyn de Worde’s 1509 printing)
Lord Jhesu, kyng of glorye,
Whyche grace and vyctorye
Thou sente to Kyng Rychard,
That nevere was founde coward!
It is ful good to here in jeste [= to hear in storied exploits]
Of his prowess and hys conqueste.
Fele [= many] romaunces men maken newe [= compose],
Of goode knyghtes, stronge and trewe.
Of here [= their] dedys men rede romaunce,
Both in Engeland and in Franse:
Of Rowelond and of Olyver,
And of every doseper [= every [one of the] twelve peers];
Of Alisaundre and Charlemayn,
Of Kyng Arthour and of Gawayn,
How they were knyghtes goode and curteys.

In The first Part of Henry the Sixt (Folio 1, 1623), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the Duke of Alençon recalls, after a French defeat, that

Froysard*, a Countreyman of ours, records,
England all Oliuers and Rowlands breed,
During the time Edward the third did raigne.

(* The poet and historian Jean Froissart (circa 1337-circa 1404) was the author of Chroniques, a French-language prose narrative covering events during the first part of the Hundred Years’ War, from around 1326 to around 1400.)

Barnabe Rich (circa 1540-1617), English author and soldier, used the phrase in a derogatory sense in A new description of Ireland wherein is described the disposition of the Irish whereunto they are inclined. No lesse admirable to be perused then credible to be beleeued: neither vnprofitable nor vnpleasant to bee read and vnderstood, by those worthy cittizens of London that be now vndertakers in Ireland (London, 1610):

Amongst many reasons that might bee rendered, why the English should bee so indeuouring and helping to the Irish, there bee three especiall reasons, more importing then the rest.
The first, is grounded vppon foresight or prouidēce, for those of the English that haue settelled themselues with Landes or liuinges in the Countrey, do finde it to bee a matter of approued policy, to combine with those of the Irish, that are most likeliest to play the Traitors, especially, if they bee bounding or bordring vpon him: for he thinketh by these meanes, not onely to saue his lands and tenementes from the spoyle of the party himselfe that is most likelie to endanger him but also by being in league and friendship of such a one, that is but in the state and condition of a demy-Traitor; that is, halfe in, and halfe out, he hopeth by his meanes so much the rather to scape scot-free, from the spoile of others: from which conceit of theirs, this prouerbe doth arise: That it is good to haue a Rowland for an Olyuer: or after our English interpretation; a Theefe to encounter a Theefe.

On 1st June 1955, the Shipley Times and Express (Shipley, Yorkshire) described two cricketers in this way:

Windhill were outclassed in both batting and bowling in their match against Spen Victoria at Busy Lane on Saturday. Thanks largely to the batting of Miles Coope […].
It seemed as if the energetic Cooper might provide a Roland for Spen’s Oliver (Coope). He laced into the bowling with a will and brought Windhill level.

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